Thanks to a truly inspiring Drama Professor, I am passionate about Anton Chekhov and Stanislavki – and their Method, which found its way to America with disciples like Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, et al. One of the few regrets I have about not being an actor any longer is that I didn’t ever play Masha from The Three Sisters on the professional stage. One of the most intense projects I worked on in Drama School was with this self-same inspiring Professor, tracing the relationship between Masha and Vershinin. I’ve never seen a stage production that quite satisfied me, although the 1970 film that Laurence Olivier made of his production of The Three Sisters (which he directed for The National Theatre in 1967) is transporting, and Joan Plowright, as Masha, is wonderful. (I watched it again recently to cleanse my palate after a ghastly production – with rock music!- at Chautauqua in May.)
In the same way that I never tire of seeing a new dramatization of any of the Jane Austin books or of Jane Eyre, I am always on the lookout for Chekhov productions. Even though he only wrote four plays (I don’t count Ivanov), which means that the cycle is not as varied as, say, Shakespeare, there is such a wealth in the plays, that there is always something new to discover. An analogy, I suppose, is going to hear the four Brahms symphonies with different orchestras and conductors.
So, imagine my delight when I had an email from the Kennedy Center about the Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya! The big selling point was that Cate Blanchett (co-Artistic Director and co-CEO of the company with her husband, Andrew Upton) was playing Yelena. She was magnificent, as you would expect, but by no means outstanding. The whole cast was superb, and the production, directed by Chekhov specialist, Tamás Ascher, who is Hungarian, was riveting. I never wanted it to end. Feeling a little bruised from the Chautauqua experience, I was apprehensive when I saw the photographs of the production in foyer beforehand, and they were clearly not in period costumes from Chekhov’s time but around the 1930s or 1940s. But it worked! It was real and convincing and funny and heartbreaking – everything you want from a Chekhov play.
I had booked tickets in Row E, so we were able see every facial expression with all the nuances, and there was not a chink in the seamless production when you felt as if the actors weren’t living the parts. A curious little frisson, right at the outset, was that they were speaking in varieties of Australian accents, of course, but that quickly became integral to the production, and even added to it. The actors are clearly of the best that Australia has to offer and many of them have done film work. Richard Roxburgh, who played Vanya, has been in films like Moulin Rouge! and Oscar and Lucinda, for example, and Hugo Weaving, who played the doctor, Astrov, has been in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Adventures of Priscilla; Queen of the Desert, and Proof, amongst many others. But, clearly, Cate Blanchett is the big film star. It was interesting how they negotiated that when she first came on stage, when an audience (perhaps particularly an American audience) would be tempted to give a big round of applause at her entrance. They had her, in a headscarf and dark glasses, drift on from upstage left as part of a group, and so she was there almost before you knew it. And then, Yelena doesn’t speak for quite a while, so that helped. She is slender and tall (more than 5’8″) and chose to play Yelena as very aware of her beauty, rather self-absorbed, and a little histrionic. All the performances were quite large and boisterous in a way that we have come to recognize as being part of a certain type of Russian character. The obvious exception was Sonya, played by Hayley McElhinney, who was so transparently vulnerable that you wanted to weep for her. And I did, actually. When I looked at her face in the second curtain call, I could see that she had already shed some of the plainness of Sonya and the actor’s real beauty was beginning to show through, but DB looked at her during the first curtain call and said it was too soon for her – she was still absolutely in character.
I can’t imagine that I will ever see a more satisfying and profound production of this play. All the directorial and acting choices were so spot on. One example sums it up for me: in the third act, after Astrov has been showing Yelena his maps, he kisses her, and it has always seemed out of the blue to me. In this instance, the thought scripting was so clear that you could read his sensing that she had another agenda and he called her bluff. It was brilliantly done. I don’t often regret not being an actor any more, but when I see a production like this I think it must have been the most rewarding experience to work on it. How wonderful, though, to have been able to see it and have it resonate so strongly with everything I know and love about Chekhov.
Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Cate Blanchett as Yelena